Fullerton/Damen/Elston Makeover Is a Net Neutral From a Livable Streets Perspective

The curb-protected bike lanes are a win, but the wide new section of Elston encourages speeding

Aerial view of the intersection after the Elston bypass, aka "The Hotdog" was built. Photo: CDOT
Aerial view of the intersection after the Elston bypass, aka "The Hotdog" was built. Photo: CDOT

While the city is heralding the $22.5 million redesign of the Fullerton/Damen/Elston intersection as a win for making urban travel more safe and efficient, it’s really more of a tie.

Yesterday Mayor Rahm Emanuel officially opened the new, curving section of Elston, which bypasses the intersection of Fullerton and Damen, where the three streets formerly met in a six-way junction. The intersection was known for traffic jams and fender benders. Final work on the project will continue through this spring.

“Damen, Elston, and Fullerton used to be one of Chicago’s most dangerous and most congested intersections, one that drivers would try to avoid at all costs,” Mayor Emanuel said. “Now with the fully opened, new intersection at Elston and Fullerton, traffic is flowing more smoothly and drivers can actually get through on a single traffic light.”

It’s true that we may see fewer minor crashes, such as rear-end collisions, now that the six-way has been eliminated. However, it remains to be seen how safe the new curving bypass (which I’ve nicknamed “The Hotdog” in honor of the adjacent Vienna Beef factory) will be.

Most stretches of Elston in the city have one travel lane in each direction, a turn lane, and buffered bike lanes. Even the notoriously suburban-style stretch northwest of Fullerton/Damen, lined with big-box stores and driveways, which makes it unpleasant to bike or walk on, still has this relatively compact layout.

The curb-protected bike lanes on the Elston bypass were generally clear of snow yesterday. Photo: John Greenfield
The curb-protected bike lanes on the Elston bypass were generally clear of snow yesterday. Photo: John Greenfield

But the Elston bypass has four travel lanes, with turn lanes at its Damen and Fullerton intersections that balloon it into a five-lane roadway at these locations. This layout encourages speeding, which could lead to an uptick in more serious crashes.

The notoriously car-centric Illinois Department of Transportation collaborated with the more progressive Chicago Department of Transportation on this project. Presumably the state insisted on widening this segment of Elston, based on the false notion that creating more capacity for cars relieves congestion, when it actually just tends to encourage more driving.

On the plus side, the bypass has curb-protected bike lanes, which were nicely plowed and salted this afternoon, save for the slush-filled driveway of the new Mellos candy and nut store, located just east of the wiener factory. But the curb-protected bike lanes are absolutely necessary on this stretch of Elston, because bicyclists shouldn’t be expected to share the road with speeding cars. Another benefit of the project is that some sidewalks have been widened.

While I view the redesign as pretty much a wash from a complete streets perspective, neither positive or negative, it’s worth noting that a statement from Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burk expressed more enthusiasm about the changes:

We applaud the city’s redesign because it will make the intersection safer for everyone while protecting the most vulnerable road users on foot and bike. The rerouting will reduce confusion and dangerous traffic patterns, while the new protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks and safer crossings will add a crucial layer of protection. Chicago’s six-way intersections are notorious hot spots for traffic crashes and especially tricky for people biking and walking, and Damen/Elston/Fullerton was even worse because Elston was offset from the Damen and Fullerton intersection. We encourage city leaders to make similar improvements at other six-way intersections.

What’s your opinion of the street remix – do you feel the new Fullerton/Damen/Elston set-up is better than before, worse, or neither here nor there?

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